Do people expect more from restaurants? Several leading San Francisco chefs said so. They were speaking in a roundtable discussion this week to flog a new Web site featuring their opinions about dining in the Bay area.
"People just aren't as happy with great food and great service as they used to be," said Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, which hosted the event. "They're disappointed if you don't give them something they've never seen before."
I rated Jardinière among the town's top 10 restaurants in my Wine Spectator cover story earlier this fall, but I think she feels stung by a lack of wider recognition. It may not be on the cutting edge, but Des Jardins' classic French-oriented approach is tempered by a Californian's obsession with freshness. She even keeps a cheese-aging room. But she's not interested in innovation for its own sake.
Laurent Manrique takes a modern French approach to seafood that qualifies as innovative at Aqua. He thinks restaurant-goers are more knowledgeable about food and wine than ever before, and that they lose patience with expensive restaurants that don't deliver a "wow" experience.
"You can't get away with anything less than a good crystal wine glass," he offered as one example. "People won't stand for it, and they don't have to be drinking Haut-Brion to know the difference."
Daniel Patterson's cutting-edge food has been getting a lot of press at his tiny 35-seat restaurant, Coi. But he got defensive when someone brought up his comments in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year, in which he lamented the lack of ambitious ideas in the Bay area's restaurants. He turned to Manrique and said, "Didn't I serve you a pork chop and greens last week?"
Personally, I think successful restaurants execute consistently well in the kitchen and have a point of view about the food and the rest of the experience. Innovation is one route, but it's not the only one.
At one point, the discussion segued into holiday dining. Des Jardins took charge of her family's dinner. Manrique adopted the full American menu and loved it. Patterson took part in a big dinner with friends in Petaluma who own a bakery. They used the stone ovens to roast turkeys for 30. "I made Brussels sprouts to roast in the oven like Roman-style arichokes, and they left the mashed potatoes and gravy for me to finish," he reports.
The fourth member of the panel, Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake, was so bummed by a mediocre dinner with family and friends in Southern California that she returned to her San Francisco kitchen to roast a duck, make duck confit and serve it with foie gras and caviar to some lucky local friends.
Although none of their restaurants were open on Thanksgiving, the chefs all agreed that Thanksgiving weekend brings out the worst in restaurant-goers. "They're frazzled," said Des Jardins. "They come in really tense. We have to really work hard to calm people down and get them in a good mood to enjoy dinner."
Des Jardins thinks it's the fallout from families who don't get along but must spend time together on Thanksgiving. My theory is that cooking the big dinner freaks out inexperienced cooks. In any event, all the chefs on the panel noticed it.